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Harlan Jacobson Reports From TIFF 2019


Plenty to see in this 44th rolling out of films in Toronto, the unlikely glitz capital of the world for these past 10 days. The major film companies, plus the itty-bitty guys and the death star streaming services like Netflix and Amazon all trotted out their sexiest fall entries in the various Oscar categories. Both the film industry and Toronto, or TIFF as it’s called-- short for Toronto International Film Festival—are accommodating themselves to smaller platforms. That means Toronto has reduced its film slate to a mere 245 features shot in 87 languages from 83 countries. 133 of them are world premieres, with a number of them just missing world preem status by sliding in from the just ended and increasingly re-emergent Venice Film Festival—the world’s first, by the way, started originally by Benito Mussolini as a propaganda tool -- and the Telluride Film Festival held over the Labor Day weekend--its own propaganda tool for hedge fund guys. 

Toronto, as ever, has a lot of the vehicles we’re going to be see pulling onto the track for the running of the Oscars.  

Start with Ford v Ferrari, the latest from Logan director James Mangold and toplining, or maybe that’s redlining those two racy guys, Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby, legendary auto designer who reshaped stodgy old Ford Motors and the American car market, and Christian Bale as Ken Miles, the bad boy Brit formula one race car driver. Together they took on more than Enzo Ferrari at Le LeMans in 1959.  They beat the Italian speed demon all through the 60’s, but first had to take on Henry Ford 2nd and the suits. 

Shelby has to talk both Miles—great name for a driver—and to Ford, played perfectly like a heavy engine block by Tracy Letts—into going into a corporate war in Europe.  Fox will release Ford V Ferrari in theatres mid-November.

Plenty of high testosterone to go around also in Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes,  Netflix Thanksgiving release of the story of Vatican infighting between the hardliners who installed Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 and the progressives who elected the Argentine Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio as Pope Francis on Benedict’s renunciation in 2013. Absorbing jousting between Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Francis, who each could command nomination for best actor, but like Ford v Ferrari compete against each other in split leads. 

Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in the upcoming film JUDY.

Judy with Renee Zellwegger playing late Judy Garland, in the last year of her life, is a one or two note biography directed by Rupert Goold, that lets Zellwegger totter and stumble her way toward an Oscar nomination through the addiction of celebrity culture and the pitfalls of the patriarchy—if that’s what you call Louis B. Mayer when she was a kid in The Wizard of Ozand the parade of husbands that came later.  Of course, we cry. 

Mr. Nice Guy Tom Hanks adds a dimensional layer to Fred Rogers in Marielle Heller’s It’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, based on a profile in Esquire by Tom Junod. The conceit is that a tough guy reporter played by Matthew Rhys, was no match for the deceptively genial PBS kid show star from Pittsburgh, who could strip away the toughest armor and find the beating heart of the wounded inner child. Hanks is a lock on a nomination, after SONY releases it for Thanksgiving. 

I initially did not want to see JOKER, thinking it’s another Marvel comic book deal from the relentlessly debased Warner Brothers. The character was previously done by the late Heath Ledger in the dark Batman chapter, but here has been liberated from Marvel and given the life of a potential celebrity assassin along the lines of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driveror the tragedy of John Hinckley skidding down the mental health highway toward John Lennon. There is a Wayne family, but they’re not headed by Batman Bruce, they’re dynasty folks sidelined by one Arthur Fleck, a sad sack who lives with his mom and his meds, which he goes off. Ruh roh for the rest of us. Joaquin Phoenix defies gravity in the role, floating out and above the angry white man chaos his character sets off in the cities, which is what’s truly dark and wonderful about Todd Phillips’ film, due out Oct. 4. 

Adam Sandler is the largest uncut gem of all, in the Safdie Brothers –Josh and Benny’s--film of the same name, Uncut Gems, which rockets around New York in a smash you in the gut guy film that begins and ends in the diamond district and takes a road trip up to the Mohegan Sun casino and back. The Safdies have their finger on the NY guy pulse. They have unleashed the Sandler his millennial kid fans always thought was there beneath the goofiness. They are proving to be generational filmmakers in the line of early Scorsese to early Tarantino –aiming at a very male first demographic—and maybe their dates. What a Christmas present this jewel will be from A24.

Other films at Toronto you will hear more about include such rise of fascism fare as Vaclav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird, adapted from Jerzy Kosinski’s novel with  Stellan Skarsgaard, Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands, Barry Pepper and  Petr Kotlar in a Czech, German and Russian language film that deserves Oscar nominations, Taika Waititi’s JoJo Rabbit, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Storywith Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in sharply written detail, and for pure fun Craig “Hustle and Flow” Brewer’s Dolemite is My Name,marking the return of Eddie Murphy as 70s badass Black B movie star Rudy Ray Moore. Great cast, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Snoop Dogg, and Wesley Snipes back from hell, too. As Rudy used to say, put your weight on it.

Notable that many of the films were based on true stories featuring an end crawl that provided both details about how the real-life characters made out and their pictures. True stories from The Two Popesto Military Wives, Ford V. Ferrari, Judy, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood are a kind of comfort food that fill the hunger for safety. Many of the films were about the rise of WWII era Fascism or Nazism, but clearly took aim at the contemporary turn to nationalism around the world. 

Toronto is run by Canadians, and they are a fair people when it comes to fare. The National Post, the conservative daily newspaper here, calculated the total running time of all features as 28,264 minutes, or about 20 days’ worth of continuous screen time. Which means taking the cultural cinema pulse of the world is a lot like the Buddhist blind men touching an elephant: it depends on what you touch. There are so many live issues these days about film—theater versus the death star streaming platforms of Netflix and Amazon, ticket price inflation, politics, violence owing to race, age and gender purity and parity—the latter an operating factor in the selection process, said the new co-heads of the festival, Cameron Bailey and Joanna Vicente—that it’s getting harder to just go see a film and see where it takes you.

Maybe the only one missing from the fall lineup that looks like it could be a player is Marty Scorsese’s The IRISHMAN, with the full boat of bad asses onboard—DeNiro, Pacino, Joe Pesci, Keitel, Cannavale.  The Irishman kicks of the New York Film Festival later this month. We’ll just have to wait and see on that score.  

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.